Learning the Dance of Cooperation
by Eric Wright, Oct. 2012
Being in the magazine trade, I tend to peruse every publication I come across for graphic quality, editorial content, even feel and texture. Then of course there are the national publications our team reviews for ideas and trends, which at SCB are the likes of Forbes, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Money, etc.
In our editorial brainstorming and creative meetings however, it becomes clear which magazines each of the team members reads for personal enjoyment. Though I won’t disclose what the others choose, my all-time favorite, which I typically try to read cover to cover, is Smithsonian. Art, history, archeology, travel, science and technology – it gives a broad brush of them all; what’s not to like? It even did a whole feature on the history of the Olympics in July, so even sports sneak in.
One of the things that fascinates me, as I read it, is how someone can spend their entire adult life studying the Sphinx in Egypt, Timber Wolves in Canada or early twentieth century American Impressionist painters. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; every day I interface with people who spend their lives studying how to be better bankers, builders or widget makers. But I’m not focusing on the importance of the “one thing.” Rather, it is about some amazing discoveries that have been made by a Cornell University researcher, Thomas Seeley, PhD, who found how bees make decisions and how thinking as a team can sweeten our decision-making process (sorry I couldn’t resist that).
Basically what Seeley realized was these little insects, which have fascinated men for centuries, are able to multiply their decision-making power with something he calls “swarm intelligence.” Now, we all know about the downside of “group-think” and “herd mentality,” with images of lemmings following each other off cliffs (which is an urban legend). Yet, everyone agrees on the creative and productive boost that working together as a team can produce, not to mention our preference for choosing leaders by vote, rather than by heredity.
Seeley’s remarkable research focused on how bees decide when and where to move to a new hive when their current home becomes too crowded or the availability of raw materials runs low. If they choose a location that is too small, they won’t be able to store enough honey for the winter. If the hive entrance is too large, it can’t be guarded against predators. Wise choices are a matter of survival, sound familiar?
To facilitate the decision-making process, beehives send out scouts whose mission is to look for real estate and then report back, using a bee version of “So You Think You Can Dance.” Surprisingly, the final call is not made by the all-powerful queen; rather there is a well-defined due diligence that hives go through before making the call together.
Closing the Deal
The process boils down to a couple of key factors:
1) ENTHUSIASM – Bees return from their fact-finding mission, having found the prospective dream house and begin to dance with passion, which excites the other bees on the committee. Researchers believe the dance is also a kind of GPS for the new location, but it is the excitement of the scout that causes other bees to fly off and check it out for themselves.
2) Since there are multiple bees all pitching their property, FLEXIBILITY plays a key role. As the broker bee goes back and forth to the new sight and returns to give a breakdance performance, others return from their walkthrough and begin to either passionately or dispassionately dance for the new sight. Once the scouts reach a quorum of 15 bees dancing for the same location, with equal fervor, the less excited bees acknowledge the better choice and give in to the majority.
What is interesting is that each scout gets a place on the dance floor, so everyone’s input is gathered. Also the late comer isn’t ignored because other bees are tired, since the late comer’s discovery might be the best.
Most importantly, to the bees, the goal isn’t to win the dance contest by beating the other contestants – it is to find the best new home for everyone. Maybe we could learn something valuable from these amazing creatures and make a little honey ourselves.